The Impossibility of Theistic and Christian Moral Principles
by Francois Tremblay
It is usually argued that only religion can justify the existence of moral principles. As I have demonstrated in ‘The Case for Objective Morality’, atheistic systems are compatible with the existence of morality, because moral principles are based on the existence of causal principles and their use in evaluating the contexts in which we exist.
In the context of Materialist Apologetics, however, we may very well ask if theism is compatible with moral principles. We may also like to ask whether Christianity specifically is compatible with moral principles.
First, we must establish the fact that moral principles are necessary. Human needs establish moral principles, since a need dictates an action to be taken to control or eliminate it, and principles supporting those actions. For example, we need to eat , and we need principles of agriculture, raising livestock, preparation, and so on.
Amongst our category 1 presuppositions, we must include the necessity of biology, the necessity of sentience, and the necessity of a transcendent knowledge base, all necessary facts which entail necessary moral principles. And of course, part of those presuppositions is also the necessity of value assignment, that is to say moral principles.
Having established this, we must now look at what Materialist Apologetics has to say about moral principles in the theological worldview. We can express the general strategy of Materialist Apologetics in this form:
Posit X is a feature of human understanding.
- X is necessary or has a necessary part.
- If theism is true, then divine creation obtains.
- If divine creation is true, then all in the universe is contingent to God’s act of creation, and nothing in the universe is necessary.
- If theism is true, then no X can be necessary or have a necessary part. (from 2 and 3)
- Theism is false. (from 1 and 4)
In this case, moral principles are necessary, minimally because of the category 1 presuppositions we have seen before. But Christians, and most reasonable people, would also hold many other moral principles. For instance, we would pretty much all agree that gratuitous suffering, if it is the result of an action, is evil. Most of us think that murder is evil (although few are so consistent as to realize that this also makes war evil). The existence of moral principles is, in fact, an important part of presuppositionalism. So we can safely presume that the theological worldview includes moral principles.
So in this case, moral principles are necessary. But if that is so, then by (4), theism is incompatible with moral principles.
Another argument can be made on the basis of the Apathetic God Paradox (see the article with that name), to prove that theism is specifically incompatible with moral principles. This is the fact that divine creation makes it impossible for there to be a causal foundation of moral principles. Indeed, the notion of divine creation makes it impossible for there to be any causal foundation whatsoever. This means that there is no possible justification in theism for the existence of moral principles.
Another argument we can use here is a rephrasing of the ‘Argument from Moral Autonomy’. This argument goes like this:
- If any being is a god, it must be a fitting object of worship.
- Worship is a kind of relationship between a worshipper and an object of worship. The relationship between man and god is infinitely asymmetrical.
- The believer must seek the god’s will and adapt his behaviour to that will. He must regard himself as being made to fulfill divine purposes, and that all events around him are the product, directly or indirectly, of the god’s will. (from 3)
- Worship requires the fundamental abandonment of one’s role as an autonomous moral agent. (from 2 and 3)
- Either a human being is (or should be) an autonomous moral agent, or he isn’t (or should not), therefore…
- If he is, then he cannot worship. (from 4)
- If he isn’t, then he could never justify worshipping.
- It follows from both that there are no circumstances under which anyone should worship. (from 5)
- No being could possibly be a fitting object of worship. (from 6)
- Therefore, there cannot be any being that is a god. (from 1 and 7)
We can rephrase this argument to disprove the possibility of moral principles, in the theistic perspective, in this way:
- God is a fitting object of worship.
- Worship is a kind of relationship between a worshipper and an object of worship. The relationship between man and God is infinitely asymmetrical.
- The believer must seek God’s will and adapt his behaviour to that will. He must regard himself as being made to fulfill divine purposes, and that all events around him are the product, directly or indirectly, of God’s will. (from 3)
- Worship requires the fundamental abandonment of one’s role as an autonomous moral agent. (from 2 and 3)
- The justification of moral principles demands one to be autonomous.
- The theistic perspective is incompatible with moral principles. (from 4 and 5)
In this case, we have added (5). But it is easy to see why (5) is true. To be able to justify moral principles demands one to be able to evaluate and defend moral facts. But someone who has surrendered his moral autonomy cannot make any such evaluation or defense by definition. While the theist may be able to say the sentence “I have moral principles”, he is utterly unable to understand what this means or implies, since the totality of his moral reasoning is fundamentally delegated to his god.
A last argument is validated by the premises that a god would consider humans especially important and would intervene in their lives. These premises are supported by elements of the Argument from Moral Autonomy (which tells us that an object of worship would have an especial importance in human lives, which implies divine intervention) and the Argument from Scope (which tells us that a god would give especial importance to knowledge-possessing beings).
But if you refuse these premises, then consider this arguments as a rebuttal of Christian moral principles specifically. For the sake of simplicity, I will use “God” to discuss it, but this does not assume that the argument is only relevant to Christianity.
My premise is that theism is an example of an emergency situation. It is usually acknowledged that an emergency situation is one where our life is endangered, without any easy way of resolving the situation. Examples of emergency situations are always temporary, such as shipwrecks, kidnapping, and so on. While the existence of God is not a temporary situation, it is still a threat to one’s life.
We can express the argument in this form:
- God’s power is infinitely higher than ours.
- God has complete control over the believer’s life. (from 1)
- There is no inherent reason to believe that God will not affect our lives negatively.
- God’s existence is an emergency situation. (from 2 and 3)
- Believing in God denies moral principles. (from 4)
(3) may seem to be a questionable premise, given omnibenevolence. But most theologians already concede that God may effect evil for a higher goal, as a rationalization against the Problem of Evil. In this sense, the argument is really a variant of the Problem of Evil, and should be seen as such. Thus we can add a premise to this effect:
- Natural and human evil exist, and contradict a god’s omnibenevolence.
Given this, (3) would inevitably follow from (0).
What therefore can we can say about the actions of a believer under the threat of theism? His actions are really a reaction to a perceived threat, much like someone who has been threatened of death. A person under such a threat has to take abnormal actions to defend himself from a danger that could come from anywhere. Note that our argument does not presume that believers actually think that God is a threat to their life, but only that it is objectively justifiable to say so. And if it is, then theism logically implies an emergency situation, whether the theist actually recognizes it or not.
The believer might reply that we are surrounded by individuals who might decide to kill us, and yet we do not act as if we are in an emergency situation. But it is important to differentiate both cases. We know from induction and simple psychological observation that most people do not have the desire to kill us, or to effect such a result. Given (0), we have no logical reason to believe the same about a hypothetical god. I do not feel that I am under threat of violence by being surrounded by sane individuals. But I should feel under threat of violence if I am in a universe controlled by a non-benevolent being.
There are also a number of arguments that address Christian and Biblical pretenses of moral principles specifically. I will end by pointing out three such arguments.
The first is that the eternal benefit of salvation in Christianity is achieved not by works, but by belief. This is the reverse argument from the argument on emergencies I have described. In this case, we start from the premise that God wishes to reward believers infinitely.
Given this, morality becomes irrelevant, and the believer is not held morally responsible for his actions. Even the worst criminal or tyrant is saved, if he professes belief in his heart before dying. Since any moral blame one can attribute the criminal is irrelevant compared to the infinite moral weight of salvation, no one can attribute moral blame to any Christian criminal, if his belief is correct. Therefore, the Christian has no grounds for his belief in moral obligation.
Also, the existence of an eternal afterlife denies moral principles, which are based on the finiteness of our lives. We need moral principles because our lives are finite and demand concerted rational action in order to preserve and enrich them. Without such limits, moral principles lose all meaning. But if nothing can help further the individual’s potential of survival, because of this eternal afterlife, then moral principles cannot exist from a Christian perspective.
The second problem is that the Bible contradicts itself on fundamental structural issues related to morality:
One should retaliate to evil in an equal manner: Deuteronomy 19:21
Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
One should let evil men continue their evil: Matthew 5:38
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Our moral judgments must put the interest of others on the same level as ours: Leviticus 19:18
‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
Our moral judgments must put the interest of others above ours: 1 Corinthians 10:24
Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.
Here are some other specific major contradictions in the Bible on the subject of morality:
- If a man marries his sister, the daughter of either his father or his mother, and they have sexual relations, it is a disgrace. They must be cut off before the eyes of their people. He has dishonored his sister and will be held responsible.
- God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”
- You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.
- And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover.
- Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.
- For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.
- _‘This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live: You must not eat any fat or any blood.’_
- What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’
These are only a few of the major moral contradictions of the Bible. Together they show that Christian morality contradicts itself routinely on major principles.
As a last problem, most Christians would claim that Christianity upholds moral principles such as love, justice, peace, and so on. The Bible, and the facts of Christian belief, do not justify such claims, show that Christian morality cannot be followed by most Christians.
Does the Bible support human rights? Jesus and his disciples encouraged slavery (Matthew 10:24-25, John 13:16, 1 Peter 2:18-20, Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-24), the Bible supports capital punishment for all kinds of actions such as cursing or hitting one’s parents (Leviticus 20:9, Exodus 21:15), being a witch (Exodus 22:18), bestiality (Exodus 22:19, Leviticus 20:15-16), breaking the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14, Numbers 15:32-36), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13), worshipping other gods or hate God (Deuteronomy 6:14-15), Deuteronomy 7:9-10), and so on and so forth.
Does the Bible promote “family values”? As I pointed out before, Jesus said he came to Earth to divide families (Matthew 10:35-36) and said that men should leave their families to preach (Luke 18:29-30). The Bible forbids relationships between relatives (Leviticus 20:17) and between men (Leviticus 20:13), and makes the man the head of the household (1 Peter 1-3). In short, the only family values being promoted are the kind of family that Christians want.
Does the Bible support capitalism, economic and scientific progress? Jesus said that only the poor may go to Heaven (Mark 10:25) and supported taxation (Luke 20:24-25). As we have seen, he also supported slavery, and so does the Bible. Christianity is based on faith and doctrine, which are both anti-science, and has opposed scientific discoveries and still does today. The Bible itself says to reject worldly education (1 Corinthians 1:19,26-27) and proposes as doctrine a great number of anti-scientific beliefs, starting from the belief in the Creation of all things, down to beliefs about genetics (Genesis 30:37-43) or medicine (Leviticus 14:33-57).
It is difficult for an impartial mind to see the Bible as anything more than hate speech. I do not know if many Christians share the Bible’s position on these issues. But the fact that most Christians do not agree with these positions proves that the Christian moral system cannot be followed, and therefore is useless as a standard.
God also provides a moral example. God encourages genocide, while forbidding killing. God demands people to follow the Sabbath, while Jesus claims it is not needed. According to the Bible, God’s omnibenevolence includes wiping out the entire population of the Earth, killing his own followers a number of times, advocating capital punishment for all kinds of victimless crimes, and condemning unbelievers to eternal torment, even though the obviousness of its existence is unavailable to most people.
These facts come to bear on the matter because the Christian claims that God’s conduct is the best possible, and as such it presents an example of the highest standard that a Christian should maintain. That example seems to be one of almost infinite and cruel evil, from a rational perspective.
August 7, 2004